A couple of years ago, I made my first visit to the great NYC bar, PDT (Please Don’t Tell). While sighing over the menu of phenomenal cocktails, one in particular caught my eye: A Benton’s Old Fashioned: bacon-infused Four Roses bourbon, Deep Mountain Grade B maple syrup, and Angostura Bitters.
Since then, I’ve seen pork in a lot of cocktails, either as an infusion, an accent, or garnish, but that Benton’s still haunts my sense memory, and when I do sidle up to a stool at the cheeky, secretive East Village watering hole, it’s always the sweet and savory ending I put on my night.
I caught up with the genius behind that bacon-infused drink, mixologist Don Lee–a Southern California expat and software engineer/systems administrator turned cocktail genius and swine aficionado. Lee’s gastronomy-of-the-glass talents as the opening Beverage Director of PDT and creator of the initial cocktails and spirits program for Momofuku Ssam Bar won him a well-deserved and devoted fan base. But how does he make that confounded bacon-infused bourbon? Check it out:
AZ: What was the inspiration behind your bacon-infused old-fashioned?
DH: My inspiration was from a love of eating bacon and drinking brown spirits. The impetus for infusing bacon into bourbon specifically was from having just learned the fat-washing technique and being introduced for the first time to Allan Benton’s bacon.
AZ: Why do you think meat infusions and garnishes work well in certain cocktails, and are there any spirits that don’t tend to handle it well?
DH: I think that directly infusing meat into spirits is generally not a good method, and until around 2007 that is what most people were attempting to do. Fat-washing, or using just the fat to infuse flavors into spirits, results in a cleaner and brighter product. In terms of spirits and flavor combinations, heavier flavors tend to work well with brown spirits while lighter flavors come through better in clear spirits.
AZ: How do you strike the right flavor balance in drinks that contain such a strong savory taste as this? Is there one equalizing component, a sort of a magic bullet you look for?
DH: Like all infusions, it’s a question of quantity and time. Just like when you making coffee in the morning you adjust the amount of liquid base v. infusing product and the amount of time you let them infuse. Once you have the right amount of the savory flavor, you balance the cocktail as you normally would. If you have to compensate for the infusion then, you should make a milder infusion.
AZ: What kind of bacon do you use? Is the fattiness of it a difficult thing to work with? Or, more directly, how do you DO this? It’s pretty incredible. And how long does it take?
DH: I use Allan Benton’s bacon because it has a smokiness unlike any other bacon I have ever tried. It lets me make a more subtle infusion with more bacon flavor and less salt.
The fat is actually what makes this infusion possible. Fat is non-polar, while drinking alcohol (40% abv) is mostly water and thus polar. This prevents the fat from being dissolved into the alcohol. The alcohol itself (ethanol), however is both polar and nonpolar, allowing water to be dissolved into itself as well fat soluble compounds. What this means is that flavorful compounds from the fat will transfer into the alcohol while keeping the fat itself separate. This, combined with the higher freezing point of fat v. low freezing point of alcohol makes it possible to solidify the fat in a standard freezer and easy to remove. That, in a nutshell, is fat washing.
In the case of the Benton’s bacon infusion, I use 1 oz of rendered fat in 750ml of Four Roses Yellow Label [Bourbon] for about 4 hours. For comparison, a clarified butter infusion into a white rum with the same ration (1 oz to 750ml) will take at least 12 hours.
AZ: What are you working on these days that you’re stoked about?
DH: I’m working on starting a cocktail ice and juice company in Manhattan. It boggles my mind that you can’t get Kold Draft ice delivered in NYC for an event. It’s easier to get liquid nitrogen delivered than it is to get the proper variety of cocktail ice we’ve come to expect in a good bar.